A Lack of Preparedness
One of the biggest issues we face when it comes to dealing with grief is that we often aren’t prepared to deal with it. No one practices grief and loss exercises like they might train for a competition. Further, nearly all of our experiences with loss are dealt with in a reactive way. We don’t start thinking about how to get through the experience until we’re confronted with it head-on, or being dragged along some slow march towards some impending “doom.”
It makes sense why. Loss and grief are a huge downer. Who wants to spend an afternoon thinking about what they’re going to do and how to cope with their feelings if their dog dies? Personally, I’d rather just go outside and play with my dog. However, it is inevitable that I will likely outlive my dog, and will one day have to deal with the loss. The question that I will need to answer when that time comes, however, is whether or not I’m equipped to handle my feelings when that time comes.
Chances are, I might not be. Much of what we think we know about dealing with loss really isn’t all that helpful. We extend tools that should help us manage smaller moments in our day-to-day as complete solutions. We internalize those bits of wisdom and advice and then apply it to ourselves, and then also repeat it to others.
In our first entry in this series, we discussed how the words and language we use can influence our psychology. It frames perspective and can have an influence over the way we perceive and respond to things, or how other people perceive and respond to our expression. This also applies to our attempts to seek comfort and guidance from other people. Even though we do not actively prepare for loss, we are primed to respond to it in a certain way.
Consider the following statement that you might hear in the aftermath of a break up:
“Don’t feel bad – there are plenty of fish in the sea!”
This statement is problematic because it is a logical answer to an emotional response. It also reinforces two types of information to the recipient: That you should not feel bad when something happens, and that what you lost is replaceable.
Digging deeper into these two assertions, consider how the following outcomes manifest. When we are told to not feel bad, especially at early ages, those who would provide comfort are (practically speaking) impressing an expectation on us to not express how we are actually feeling. This can cause a disassociation with our outward expression and our internal ones, and foster the idea that grieving should be done privately, away from other people. Even further, we pass this disassociation on to our peers or other people who are impressionable by our actions. We grieve alone, so that’s what people do and they should, too. That “giving space” in moments of tragedy is essential.
There are numerous bits of “wisdom” like this that we tell other people in their own grief. Space, time, displacement, even invalidation or minimizing of someone’s feelings of loss. These are all things that dance around grief but don’t actually acknowledge or resolve the issues that cause it to begin with. The only reason that we lean into these things is because it’s what was told to us by someone else who had it told to them.
To be clear, some of these things aren’t inherently useless. Managing our emotions or how we’re dealing with things moment to moment can effectively be accomplished by stepping away and taking a moment to recollect ourselves in private. The key to all of it, though, is to make sure that we’re not relying on these as our sole course of healing. These can be tools tool dealing with our grief but they will not solve it. The world is littered with people who sat on their emotions and grief without engaging actively with it and they never quite get back to the same place they were before. For every person who was able to manage on their own, there are scores more that “were never able to trust again” after a bad relationship.
Breaking the Cycle
If we’re identifying learned responses to grief that are ineffective at resolving our emotions or feelings, then the best course of action would be to move in a different direction. Instead of internalizing, suppressing, and isolating, what happens if we start expressing ourselves outwardly, actively engaging in the way we feel, and building community? How much better can we feel if we could resolve our grief in a way that allows us to move forward as a whole person, instead of one carrying the weight of it with us?
This is easier than it sounds. Remember – most everyone has these learned responses of how to deal with grief, and they pass those behaviors and expectations on to other people. Grievers will never have more support and feel more love from other people than in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event or loss occurring. As time slides by, if they have not yet resolved their feelings, that support wanes as other people withdraw back to their “normal.” Eventually, the expectation is that the griever act “fine.” They may even have internal pressure to act “fine” because they don’t want to bother everyone else with “their problems.”
This is wrong, and we need to flip the script. Closing the book on grief requires actively pushing back on these expectations. No more isolation, no more lying about feelings. This starts with acknowledging that our grief exists, and putting words to it. Language impacts our psychology, and when we can identify the bounds of something, when we can define what it is, we can start to actively address it.
We’re going to go more in-depth with strategies for actively engaging in grief and loss in our next part of this series. For now, the focus should be on what paths can be taken that are outside of what we’re expected to do. If it’s personal grief, or trying to support someone else, make the following ideas off-limits: That we shouldn’t feel bad (don’t minimize or invalidate), the replacement is going to cure a loss, space is essential, and that time heals all wounds (instead of what’s done during that time).